Five federal agencies want big robot technology advances

US funding robotic help in healthcare, security, agriculture and biology

USDA: VersaBot/P
Five federal agencies this week teamed to announce they are looking to fund innovative research and development of robotic technologies for everything from home healthcare and bomb detection to biological sensors and agriculture applications.

The idea of most of the new applications is to automate tasks and ultimately enrich human lives, the agencies stated. Robotics technology is reaching what the agencies called a tipping point and is poised for explosive growth because of improvements in core technologies such as microprocessors, sensors, and algorithms, they stated.

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Members of the research community and program managers in key science agencies have identified a shared vision and technical agenda for developing "co-robots" - a next generation of robotic systems that can safely co-exist in close proximity to or in physical contact with humans in the pursuit of mundane, dangerous, precise or expensive tasks, the agencies stated.  

In this case those agencies include: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

From the announcement here's a look at some of the robotic technologies these agencies are looking for:

DARPA -- The defense department scientific wizards want revolutionary robot motors and drives known as actuators that meet or exceed the safety and efficacy of human muscle. To be safe, an actuator must have low minimum stiffness and low stored energy, even during fault conditions. To be effective, an actuator must have high force density, high (potentially logarithmic) force resolution, sufficient bandwidth, and be robust against unexpected collision. In addition, DARPA seeks approaches that do not rely on exotic or expensive materials or processes, and approaches exhibiting potential for low-cost manufacturing.

DHS - The agency envisions revolutionary technologies to remotely or robotically access, diagnose, and render safe improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  The agency is seeking advanced research in power systems, mobility, frequency allocation, security, satellite systems, wireless communications and  tethered versus radio frequency systems.  It is also interested in robotics to survey captured tunnels for forensic collection and mitigation activities.

NIH -- NIH wants robotics technologies to support and improve quality of life, well-being, and the ability of older adults or individuals with mobility impairment to live independently and safely at home.  Examples include technologies and devices that could help evaluate, monitor and improve mobility;  improve health service delivery to elders; provide information to health care providers and family members with which to evaluate the need for intervention; and promote communication and interaction between older people or individuals with disabilities living in the community or in institutional settings and their health care providers, friends and family members.

NSF -- Patient Mobility and Rehabilitation Robotics: Robotics research in rehabilitative/assistive robotics; naturally inspired, biomimetic, neuromechanical robotics; and social robotics. Fundamental research advances must be made in materials, manufacturing, signal processing, MEMS/NEMS devices, neural control, social-assist robots, simulators, robots for training/learning processes and energy harvesting techniques.

The disabled and elderly have severe problems with mobility.  For example, lifting wheel chairs are rare, expensive, and not well engineered. The disabled and elderly have difficulty in getting from bed to a chair, to the toilet, or to a shower or bath, and back.  Care givers often suffer back injuries from attempting to lift heavy patients in and out of bed, or even from attempting to change sheets while the patient is in the bed.

It is also looking for robotic care-givers for management of chronic heart, lung, or blood diseases. Such robots would be developed for reminding patients to take medication, monitoring compliance and vital signs, and wirelessly communicating with primary caregivers. Robotic care-givers would be of substantial benefit to remotely-located patients and/or patients who do not have a strong family or other support.

NIH is also interested in research on biomechanics which can be applied to a broad range of applications including implants, prosthetics, clinical gait and posture biomechanics, traumatic injury, repair processes, rehabilitation, sports and exercise, as well as technology development in other NIH interest areas applied towards biomechanics.

USDA - The agency wants what it calls High-Throughput Robotic Technologies.  Examples include automated systems for harvesting, inspection, sorting, and handling of animal products, fruits, vegetables, and other horticultural crops in production or processing environments.  It wants improved robotics for inspection, sorting, and handling of plants and flowers in greenhouses and nurseries, or for processing (e.g., sorting, vaccinating, deworming) large numbers of live animals.  Multi-modal and rapid sensing systems for detecting ripeness, physical damage, microbial contamination, size, shape, and other quality attributes of plant or animal products, or for monitoring air or water quality.

The agency would like to see what it called vision-directed robotic arms that can distinguish plant or animal targets within complex natural environments (e.g., tree canopies, vines, beds, pens).  Robots that can harvest fruits, vegetables, or plants or that can handle small live animals, with appropriate force and motion for proper extraction and to minimize/avoid damage.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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